Just north of the entrance to the Byers Lake
Campground, between MP 147.1 and 147.5 on the George Parks Highway, is
the Medal of Honor Loop to the Alaska Veterans' Memorial, POW-MIA rest
area, and the visitor center for Denali State Park.
I encourage anyone traveling this highway
between Anchorage and Fairbanks (or Denali National Park) to stop here
for at least half an hour -- rain or shine -- to visit
this impressive outdoor memorial.
Entrance to the main alcove of the veterans' memorial
Inscription on the plaque on the left side of the
If it's a nice day, it'd be easy to stay longer
and enjoy a picnic or relax in the beautiful surroundings. On a
clear day this is reputed to be one of the best places to see Mt.
McKinley AKA Denali.
Since it's been raining all three days we've
been here, we have yet to verify that. <grumble>
But even on the rainy day we visited we really
enjoyed paying tribute to Alaska's military veterans and learning more
about the role Alaska has played in various world conflicts. It's in a
strategic location for the defense of our country. More about that
in a bit.
setting for the rest area, visitor center, and veterans' memorial,
walkways that make the whole area wheelchair-accessible
The expansive rest area has plenty of parking for vehicles
of every size, including large RVs and tour buses:
picnic tables in the grass and shade, water, restrooms, a pet walk, viewing scopes, and a park
visitor information center.
Visitors with more time and energy can also walk down the hill about
half a mile to Byers Lake and the campground
where we've been staying this weekend. I showed photos of some of the
trails in the last entry. They'd be a good place to stretch your legs
before resuming your journey north or south.
If you'd like to stay overnight and the Byers Lake Campground is full or there
are no spaces available in it for big rigs, RVs may park overnight in a
designated part of the rest area for a $10 fee.
and below: Denali State Park visitor center, interpretive kiosk,
and Denali viewing deck
The state park visitor information center is
located between the parking/picnic area and veterans' memorial.
It has a large deck and several very
interesting, handsome wood-framed interpretive panels that describe the
continued growth of Denali (it gains 3/4" in height each year because
two tectonic plates keep colliding with each other), the ways various kinds
of wildlife survive the punishing winters up here, the migration and
nesting cycle of trumpeter swans, clues to help you recognize the three
kinds of bears you might encounter here, and other facts about nature in
I especially enjoyed the panel explaining the ways
various birds and animals deal with Alaska's harsh winters:
They either escape by flying, walking, or swimming to warmer climes,
adapt to the conditions, or burrow underground until it warms up again.
I smiled when I thought about the ways humans also do these
things to deal with the cold and snow in northern environments. Many
love it and adapt readily, enjoying skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing, and
other outdoor activities in the snow. Others are basically stuck in these
environments for various reasons (jobs and family, e.g.) and "dig in" to
cope, staying indoors as much as possible.
Then there are those of us who simply escape most cold weather and snow, like the birds that
migrate to Central and South America for the winter. Jim and I are poster kids for
the "snowbird" RV life, only we don't go that far south.
CLOSED FOR THE SEASON: THE SUMMER SEASON!
I mentioned the state park visitor center --
unfortunately, it is closed this summer. This sign is on the door:
I talked with a maintenance guy who was cleaning
the bathrooms, which are open. I asked him what the building in the
back of the parking area is, in case it was something we wanted to see.
He said it's a volunteer cabin, but with the high fuel
prices this year, the state park department wasn't able to get a
volunteer to work at the visitor center this summer so the cabin isn't
being used now. Apparently there
aren't funds to pay someone to work here, either, so the visitor center
is closed all summer.
That's too bad. I'm sure it's a nice visitor
center and we could have used more information about the park, such as a
trail map. The maintenance guy searched through his truck and came up
with an old park brochure to give me, so that helped a little bit but it
doesn't show where all the trails are located. We can't get online
anywhere near here to see if there's more information on the park's
fireweed is ubiquitous in Alaska and other northern states. It blooms
bottom up. When the top buds open, you know autumn is imminent.
I'm glad the state hasn't closed the entire rest
area. That's happened in some other states.
This rest area has so much going for it that
residents and visitors would be very disappointed if it closed, too.
A FITTING MEMORIAL TO VETERANS
You don't have to be or know an Alaska veteran
to appreciate this impressive memorial to each branch of the military,
the Coast Guard, the National Guard, the Merchant Marine, POWs, MIAs,
recipients of the Medal of Honor, and victims of two nearby military air crashes.
As an Army and National Guard veteran, Jim was
impressed by the memorial. As a U.S. citizen, I was also impressed. This
place truly honors the sacrifices all military personnel have made,
not just those from Alaska.
It's a short walk on paved walkways through the woods from the
visitor center/information kiosk/viewing deck to the Alaska Veterans'
As we approached the main alcove we passed by smaller memorials to
individuals who were awarded the Medal of Honor and victims of two
military plane crashes:
In 1954 an Air Force C-47 crashed into nearby K'esugi Ridge, killing
10 of the 16 personnel aboard. In 1957 a plane stationed at Elmendorf
AFB ran into foul weather and crashed into the Talkeetna Mountains,
killing 6 of 10 crew members.
Memorials to the plane crash
victims; the propeller on the left
is from the C-47 that crashed into K'esugi Ridge.
Plaques honoring three of the
Medal of Honor recipients
Here's the photo again of the entrance to the main alcove:
The statue in the center, sculpted by George Pratt, depicts two
Alaska Territorial Guards on lookout with binoculars.
The plaque on the left has the inscribed tribute I used at the top of this entry. The
plaques on the right honor the Alaska National Guard and the unpaid
volunteers who served in the Territorial Guard during WWII when members
of the National Guard were called to duty.
Inside the main alcove five handsome 20-foot tall concrete panels
stand sentinel in a semi-circle:
Three flags on poles, L-R: POW-MIA, United
Each panel depicts one of the main branch of the service --
Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. Each
one has a large cut-out star at the top and a description of the
branch's history in Alaska inscribed at the bottom:
The main memorial alcove was constructed in 1983 and dedicated in 1984.
There are also nine or ten detailed interpretive panels at the memorial and
the visitor center kiosk that describe the two military plane crashes
mentioned above and give interesting historical information about the
role Alaskans have played in defending our country.
Interpretive panel topics include:
- the surprising part Native Alaskan whalers played during
the Civil War;
- the role of the U.S. Army and Navy in exploring
Alaska to advance settlement, maintain order, and lend assistance from
- the history of the Territorial Guard AKA "Tundra Army" during WWII;
- the fortuitous recovery of a downed Japanese Zero aircraft at Dutch
Harbor that helped the U.S. build lighter, more agile fighter planes;
- the story of the 8,000 military aircraft we gave the Russians during
WWII to help fight the Germans (Russian pilots were trained on the
planes in Fairbanks, then flew them to Russia);
- the ferocious Battle of Attu on the Aleutian Chain in 1943 (we
beat the Japanese and learned more about beach fighting in lousy
- the role of strategic military bases in Alaska during the Cold War
with nearby USSR (remember that old Nike missile site and radar
installation above Anchorage I've shown in my hiking reports from
- and the use of the Army's High Altitude Rescue Team helicopters
since 1954 to revolutionize the rescue of stranded/injured climbers on
Denali (most had pulmonary edema/altitude sickness).
I noticed each of the military interpretive panels had a cut-out star
in the upper left corner to mimic the stars on the concrete panels in
the main memorial alcove. Denali is in the background, since this is
supposed to be a great place to view the mountain:
You can spend quite a while reading all this information while you're
at the rest area and veteran's memorial. Or you can do what I did and scan
each interpretive panel quickly, take photos of the ones that interest
you the most, and read them later on your computer!
Hey, it gave me something to do on yet another rainy day . . .
Tomorrow morning we'll head up the Parks Highway to Denali National
Park, where we have campground reservations for eight days. It's a
relatively short drive for us of about 95 miles.
Pretty berries and flowers at the veterans'
Since we have no TV or internet connection at Byers Lake we don't
know what the current weather prediction is for the area of the park
where we'll be staying (not far off the highway).
We just hope it clears up enough in the next week that we can get
some good views of Denali. We know people who've spent several days
there and never did get to see The High One. It's shrouded in clouds
about 70% of the time in the summer, an elusive tourist magnet.
Next entry: a surprising trip north to Denali
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the ultra Lab
© 2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil